What Is Letterboxing?

A young girl shows off her letterboxing kit
A young girl shows off a letterboxing kit, which includes a log book and a unique stamp. Kevin McGee [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr
A couple finds a letterbox somewhere in the United Kingdom
A couple finds a letterbox somewhere in the United Kingdom. paul dickson / Letterboxing [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Treasure hunting has always held an almost mystic allure, whether you're Lara Croft or Captain Jack Sparrow or, you know, somebody real. Like Samurai Kitty.

The treasure part of treasure hunting is only part of it, of course, and maybe the smaller bit at that. In treasure hunting, as it is with travel and maybe with serial dating, the search is often more rewarding than the payoff.

It's also true with letterboxing, a kind of souped-up scavenger hunt. Like its cousin geocaching, in which hunters use GPS to find "treasure," letterboxing is a hobby in which people trek into the great outdoors to find hidden boxes filled with ...

Well, it's not about the treasure, remember?

"I can't tell you how many times I've said the words, 'I never knew this place was here!' There's a cool area less than a mile from my house where you can find the New Hampshire Heritage Trail. Who knew?," says Samurai Kitty, the trail name of Kimberly Rhault, a manager of a day care program in New Hampshire for adults with developmental disabilities.

"Letterboxing is how I learned about Rhododendron State Park, with a forest of wild rhododendron that bloom furiously in July every year. It's also how I found a great coffee shop in Nashua called Bonhoeffer's where we keep a 'Box of the Month' which contains a stamp that we change every month. Letterboxing is how I discovered the PEZ factory in Connecticut!"

Readying for your letterbox hunt

A young girl shows off her letterboxing kit
A young girl shows off a letterboxing kit, which includes a log book and a unique stamp. Kevin McGee [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

Getting started in letterboxing is easy enough. Two sites — Letterboxing North America and Atlas Quest — provide all the rules and tips. Both sites offer something even more important: Clues.

The clues to finding boxes aren't so much clues as they are directions. Some are riddles of sorts. But most are completely literal. For example:

"Straight in front of you, on the rocky hill, should be a live cedar with another one up behind it and a little to the right. Below the first live cedar about 12 feet is the biggest boulder in a group of boulders," reads one clue to a box in Norris, Montana. "A little to the left and above it about 2 feet is a smaller boulder straddling two below it, creating a cave on the west side. Look under the top (east), right side of this boulder to find Joe."

The journey's the thing

letterbox and stamp
The special stamps are often found on letterboxes like this one in the U.K. QuentinUK [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Samurai Kitty recalls a time in Maine when she went looking for a box on a small island that was accessible only by a sandbar. She compared a picture of a tree that was part of the clue to the landscape in front of her. She made it out to the island.

When she emerged from the woods, the sandbar was gone, lost to a high tide.

"I had a choice to make, and I chose not to sit on an island in the rain for 12 hours," she writes MNN in an email. "I slogged my way out to where the sandbar had been with my Letterboxing gear and my camera held over my head. The water reached the level of my chest and several times I narrowly avoided plunging into deep water with a missed step off the edge of the sandbar. I can swim, but the thought of ruining my log book (which I made by hand) was terrible. Loons swam along beside me. I'm pretty sure they were laughing at me. The people on the deck of the hotel on shore were definitely laughing at me. I made it across with all but my dignity intact."

Kitty (again, her nom de trail) once found a letterbox on a beach in Costa Rica. She uncovered two more in Queenstown, New Zealand.

Like all good letterboxers should, Kitty always follows the rules of the trail. Leave no trace in the woods. Hide 'em well and put 'em back better. Be discreet when people are around. And be safe.

The big payoff

When boxers plant a letterbox, they put a logbook and a rubber stamp in a weathertight container. They hide it under dirt or leaves or in a hole or beneath rocks, out of sight. And then they put the word out.

The stamp of letterboxer Samurai Kitty, a.k.a. Kimberly Rhault
The stamp of letterboxer Samurai Kitty, a.k.a. Kimberly Rhault

When they find a box, they stamp the box's logbook with their personal stamps — like Samurai Kitty's stamp shown at the right — and take the box's stamp and mark their logbooks. Then hide the box again.

If letterboxers run into each other on the trail, or at a letterboxing event, they exchange stamps.

That's how letterboxers gauge their success. Kitty has been at it since 2013. Her PFX number — Planted, Found, Exchanged — is P32 F394 X2.

If the journey's the thing, the destination for letterboxers — the treasure, the payoff, the pot at the end of their rainbow — are the boxes and those stamps. Many are hand-carved by their owners.

"I once found a stamp in a box that was a portrait of a person. The detail and shading was so impressive, I think I might recognize the person if I saw them!" Kitty says. "I've seen scenic stamps as beautiful as any painting, and recreations of illustrations from classic children's stories."

No, it's not the riches at the end of "National Treasure" or the idol Indiana Jones snags just before the boulder starts rolling. But for letterboxers, the reward is in the finding.